When Howard at the front desk asks what I’m heading out to hear tonight, I tell him and his eyes light up.
The famous work felt especially plugged in on Friday night, when maestro Gianandrea Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra resumed its “Beethoven & American Masters” series with powerful, rousing performances of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies, as well as the compact colossus that is George Walker’s 2016 Sinfonia No. 5, “Visions.”
When last we left this series back in January 2022, Noseda had reached his own personal apotheosis of dance with a high-octane rendition of the Third (“Eroica”) Symphony. It was an appropriately heroic interpretation that also seemed emblematic of a more fleet-footed, detail-driven, feather-ruffling approach to the cycle.
On Friday, the rock continued to roll, and rightly so. These two particular symphonies are what the kids would call bangers: aggressively rhythmic, wryly cocky, conspicuously concerned with delight.
Noseda opened the program with a brisk and vivacious take on the Eighth that sounded bigger than his orchestra’s personnel of 45 musicians. He added more than a little extra brio to the first movement (“Allegro vivace e con brio”), answering its bold entrance with gentle woodwinds, hinting at a through-line of good humor.
I’ve come to really enjoy Noseda’s willingness to play with volume — and I do mean “play” in the sense of using something to have fun with it. Some have confided to me an unease with the maestro’s charges through proverbial china shops. (I received more than a few crumple-faced emails after Noseda’s Fifth.) To me, it just feels like he is matching Beethoven’s energy.
Thus the mischief of the Allegretto scherzando was made more mischievous, its huffy pace and hushed dialogues of oboes and flutes interrupted by scrubby strings. Noseda seemed to physically delight in navigating the movement, especially the nonchalant way its ending ghosts. The third movement (“Tempo di menuetto”) was grand and graceful, its melodies marvelously drawn by the strings, especially rich the cellos. The interlude of horns and clarinet was especially beautiful.
And the final Allegro vivace was gripping, Beethoven at his most charming and churlish. Its racing strings, darting winds and swift accents were all kept in gleefully teetering check, its breathless tempo smartly punctuated by Jauvon Gilliam’s timpani. It’s final tempestuous minute was a precisely crafted thrill — especially the cheeky punchline passage of octaves, and that clobbering closing.
At first glance, Walker’s Sinfonia No. 5, “Visions” might seem out of place on such a lighthearted program.
In his final work, Walker composed the Sinfonia as a protest against violence done to Black parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church fatally shot by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. The composer died in 2018 at age 96, a year before “Visions” was premiered by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
But as this series has effectively shown in previous pairings of Beethoven and Walker, the two composers have much to talk about. If the shadow of Beethoven is present, it’s because Walker has cut it into pieces and tiled them into a mosaic of sharp edges and high contrast. Like the Seventh and the Eighth, Walker’s No. 5 traffics in kinetic rhythm, shocking turns of tone and color, sudden floods of garish light.
The number of musicians onstage doubled to 90 for Walker — and the chilling strings and blast of low brass that open the work suggest something bigger than its 15 minutes could possibly contain. Musically, it feels like a series of exclamations, a procession of cries, a sequence of troubling memories. A few outbursts of piano feel like Walker himself storming in to remind us how the machinery of American violence obscures the humanity of Black grief.
Soprano Shana Oshiro, tenor DeMarcus Bolds, bass Kevin Thompson and bass-baritones Daniel J. Smith and V Savoy McIlwain filed into the chorister seats to deliver the fragments of spoken text mapped across the Sinfonia. Although it may have been impractical or impossible to have the speakers appear onstage with so many musicians, this alternative was acoustically unfortunate. The voices sounded cartoonishly boomy through the sound system and disproportionate with the orchestra, the volume drowning out the delicate instrumentation below. It’s a problem worth fixing, considering how otherwise vivid this performance was.
In December 1813, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonio Salieri and Giacomo Meyerbeer (on bass drum) were among the illustrious musicians in the orchestra for the premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh. The concert was a benefit for soldiers wounded at Hanau that also featured the premiere of the composer’s “Battle Symphony” (a.k.a. “Wellington’s Victory”). Many consider this to be the concert that confirmed to Beethoven’s contemporaries that his early laurels were well earned. (Though plenty still took shots at his conducting, which German composer Louis Spohr once described as “uncertain and often laughable.”)
Sans any sporadic shouts to boost the forte, descriptions of Beethoven’s performance from the podium that evening aren’t far removed from what we heard Friday at the Kennedy Center. An animated Noseda threw his intermission-charged body into the Seventh, which burst open into cool woodwinds and gathering strings and went airborne from there. He crafted lovely depth and dimension into the movement, the peaks and valleys (or nooks and crannies) of which too often get paved over, but were brilliantly lit by the orchestra — whittled down to 54.
The second movement — a curveball Allegretto that went over well enough at the premiere to be encored — was satisfying and sturdy, with Noseda gradually stoking momentum with the second violins as though opening the flue of a chimney.
The presto of the third was kept extra-presto, with beguiling feints (or faints?) of volume in the repeating theme of the strings. It slackened and loosened and reveled in an overblown elegance that seemed like an orchestral grin.
And together they barreled into the finale (“Allegro con brio”), Noseda conjuring delicious accents from the brass, coaxing a lithe duo from the flutes, clearing a quiet space for languid oboes (a trap!) and building to a boisterous climax.
For lack of a better word, or maybe it’s the best one — it rocked.
Beethoven & American Masters: George Walker & Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies repeats May 13 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.
A previous version of this article gave the incorrect last name of German composer Louis Spohr. This version has been corrected.